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Maids & Mistresses, Wives & Widows: Women’s Lives in Eighteenth-Century England - HIS00074C

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Elizabeth Spencer
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21
    • See module specification for other years: 2018-19

Module summary

What was life like for women in eighteenth-century England? Did they live a restricted existence controlled by fathers, masters, and husbands, or did they in fact exercise more agency than this in their day-to-day lives? These are the questions we will explore in this module as we move through some of the different stages in an adult woman’s life cycle, including marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, spinsterhood, and death. We will think about how different women experienced these stages, as well as what was expected of them by wider society. By doing so we will consider not just the importance of gender, but also the impact of socio-economic position on women’s lives, as we hear from individuals ranging from poor unwed servants to ladies at the head of their own household.

Women’s voices – and those of poorer women in particular – are often difficult to find, and we will therefore look across a range of sources in order to recover them. In addition to letters and diaries, we will consider some more unfamiliar sources like court records, ballads, wills, ‘how-to’ manuals, and printed images. The eighteenth century was a period in which a growing body of conduct literature stressed that women should be frugal, modest, and subject to the authority of men, but by exploring these different sources we will build up a richer and more complex picture of their everyday lives and experiences.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To give an intensive introduction to an unfamiliar period and/or approach to the study of history;
  • To offer experience in the use of primary source materials;
  • To develop skills in analysing historiography; and
  • To develop core skills such as: bibliographical search techniques; source analysis; essay writing; giving presentations; and, undertaking independent research.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Acquire an insight into an unfamiliar period and/or approach to history through intensive study of an aspect of the period and/or an approach to it;
  • Gain experience of analysing primary source materials;
  • Be able to evaluate an historical explanation;
  • Have further developed work undertaken in the Autumn Term lecture courses and skills portfolios, including historical analysis, note-taking, using primary sources, presenting to groups, and leading discussions in seminars;
  • Be able to construct a coherent historical argument in oral and written forms

Module content

Teaching will be in weekly 2-hour seminars taught over nine weeks, plus an overview and revision session in Week 2 of Summer Term. Each week students will do reading and preparation in order to be able to contribute to discussion. 

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

Spring Term

Introduction: Women and the life cycle

Women in service

Marriage and the household

Women, crime, and the courts

Menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth


Women in business

Death: Understanding probate records


Summer Term

2.         Overview and revision


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Open Exam
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative work:

During the Spring Term students will prepare a presentation in pairs or small groups. Tutors will determine the formative work for the course: all groups will present either on a primary source or on an assigned historiographical question. Formative work will be completed in one or more sessions at the tutor’s discretion.

Summative assessment:

An open exam in the Common Assessment Period, comprising one essay question chosen from five options.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Open Exam
N/A 100

Module feedback

The formative assessment is a group presentation and verbal feedback will be provided by the tutor in class followed by a written summary to each student within 10 working days. Students will have a 15 minute one-to-one tutorial to discuss the formative assessment and prepare for the summative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement on Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Should you wish to do any preliminary reading, you could look at the following:

Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s lives in Georgian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Barker, Hannah, and Elaine Chalus, eds. Women’s History: Britain, 1700-1850. An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2005.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): changes to courses

The 2020/21 academic year will start in September. We aim to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as we can, supported by high quality online alternatives where we must.

Find details of the measures we're planning to protect our community.

Course changes for new students